First responder experiences his own stroke emergency

As the Captain and EMS Coordinator for the West Bloomfield Fire Department, Gary, 55, is a trained paramedic who is skilled at recognizing the signs of stroke in patients when responding to emergency calls. But when he started experiencing an unusual symptom in the fall of 2021, he brushed it off.

“I had experienced some numbness in my leg on and off for about a month but didn’t think anything of it,” says the Lake Orion resident. “We tell people, ‘if something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right, and you need to get it checked out.’ Being in the medical profession, we don’t always practice what we preach.”

One strong risk factor in a stroke assessment is a family history of cardiovascular issues, but Gary didn’t have a significant history. In addition, he wasn’t experiencing most of the classic stroke symptoms, such as facial droop, arm weakness on one side, or speech difficulty (unable to speak clearly or garbled speech). Health care providers often reference these symptoms with the acronym FAST, which stands for “Face, Arms, Speech, Time.” Time is a critical factor in stroke treatment, so seeking treatment as soon as possible is essential.

“I’m also decently active,” Gary says. “Every morning, I work out for 30 to 45 minutes. I wasn’t sitting around all the time eating chips and watching TV.”

All of this made it easier to ignore his occasional leg numbness by attributing it to other potential causes. But on November 5, that all changed. Gary arrived at the West Bloomfield fire station that day, ready to tackle his morning exercises and some office work. The numbness was back, making his leg feel “rubbery.” In addition, his back was now bothering him.

“I’ve had back problems for years, so when it happened, I thought it was just acting up again,” Gary says. A half hour later his symptoms had gotten worse, and he wasn’t so sure. “I asked one of my guys to come take my blood pressure, and it was high,” he says. “I’ve never had high blood pressure, so this was a clear warning sign.”

Gary was rushed by ambulance to Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, where they evaluated him and broke the news: He was experiencing a stroke. “I was shocked,” Gary says. “I thought, ‘Wait, this can’t be stroke.’ Working in this field, even when you see stuff like this every day, you don’t think it can happen to you. It was a huge wakeup call.”

Fast treatment and more findings

Given that delayed treatment can result in permanent disability or even death, the team at Henry Ford West Bloomfield moved quickly to assess and treat his stroke. “They gave me some medication to bring my pressure down,” Gary says. At that point, most of his symptoms had resolved, so he didn’t need to undergo a procedure to remove the blockage.

While this was good news, Gary’s treatment journey was just starting. And stroke wasn’t the only concern anymore. They also discovered he was suffering from high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

Gary’s care team ran more tests during the five days he was in the hospital, including MRIs to help determine the location where his stroke had occurred. They also worked on getting his blood sugar to healthy levels and he was placed on blood pressure medication as well as a low dose aspirin to help thin his blood and reduce the risk of experiencing another stroke.

Lifestyle changes and a new perspective

These days, Gary continues to check in periodically with his neurologist, Hebah Hefzy, M.D.

“She wanted me to make several changes to my diet and lifestyle,” Gary says. “I’m now on a low-carb diet, which seemed daunting at first, but my Henry Ford team did a great job of explaining it. I’ve also been working on my cholesterol.”

Through all of these changes, Gary’s family, including his wife, three grown children and three grandchildren, have been very supportive. “They have been my biggest cheerleaders,” he says.

Gary is also thankful for his Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital team. “I’ve worked with them for years through my job, discussing patients and case reviews,” he says. “It’s very different being on the other side. This was the first time I experienced what they do all the way through a patient’s stay, and everybody was amazing.”

Gary has a new perspective and encourages everyone not to brush off any new symptoms. “Don’t ignore things,” he says. “You need to listen to your body and what it’s telling you.”

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